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Pittsburgh approves snow plow tracker contract despite concerns about its accuracy

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh will continue to use the same fleet telematics system for its snowplow trucks this winter despite some city leaders voicing frustrations about the accuracy of the city’s online plow tracking system.

The city will pay engineering consultant Quetica about $220,000 per year through 2024 to install GPS devices on public works trucks and maintain services for trucks already outfitted with the equipment. The contract also covers the cost of running the city’s snow plow tracker app.

City Council members voted to extend the contract Tuesday. But last week, members called the snowplow tracker inaccurate and prone to glitches. Councilor Erika Strassburger argued the tracker might be reliable for the first few snow events of the season, but she said it becomes less accurate as the winter progresses.

“Halfway through the winter season, you just can’t trust it anymore,” she argued.

Councilor Anthony Coghill, whose District 4 constituents have long criticized the city’s snow removal services, told WESA he sees the tracker more of a problem than an asset.

Plow trucks must leave his district to collect salt elsewhere in Pittsburgh. As a result, sometimes trucks assigned to District 4 don’t appear on the plow tracker. The South Hills district is also home to many steep hills and curves that plow drivers must carefully navigate, which is not well explained by the tracker, he said.

If a truck is moving under five miles per hour or backwards up a hill, the tracker does not register that information in the public portal. Coghill said that, in addition to trucks leaving the district entirely for more salt, results in angry calls to his office and posts online about streets being ignored.

He wants the city to consider a city-wide hotline dedicated to complaints about unplowed roads. Otherwise, he said his office is flooded with calls about what residents see on the tracker. During the winter, he said it can be hard to address other issues because his office is overwhelmed with complaints about snow removal.

“For me to be a more effective councilperson, I can't be worried about this,” he said. “I would like to see it eliminated from my district.”

Coghill said he ultimately voted for the nearly $500,000 contract extension because the portion that covers the snowplow tracker app only accounted for about $7,000. The remainder covers the cost of the GPS systems.

Council President Theresa Kail-Smith voted against the contract Tuesday. She argued last week that experienced plow drivers could map out more effective routes than the GPS system used by the city. She argued the city should “trust that they know how to do their job,” and said drivers might feel “micromanaged” by the tracker.

Coghill agreed Tuesday that experienced plow drivers know city streets best, but noted that public works hired 14 new drivers last year who may be less familiar with the city than veteran public works employees.

Councilor Deb Gross abstained from voting Tuesday but was outspoken against the efficiency of the snow plow tracker last week. She argued the system might be best used strictly internally because public works managers can “get in touch with the driver and find out whether what you see on the screen is accurate or not.”

“But if you’re sitting at home, you don’t know whether the information that it’s communicating to you is currently accurate,” Gross said.

She said a tracker app could be useful, but the technology isn’t currently reliable enough to inform a public resource. “We’re just kind of putting out, possibly, misinformation.”

While Pittsburgh hasn’t had a major snow event as the official start of the winter season approaches, the city will make the plow tracker available to the public during snow events this winter, according to a Gainey administration spokesperson.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.